My math brain is trying to kill me!

One of the great hardships in my life as a math teacher is that many of the people that have my students before me work really hard to cripple them. It’s like having a gym teacher who smashes the kneecaps of most of the people taking his class. In any other discipline this sort of behavior could be prosecuted. When teaching math, it is just fine to not only terrify and handicap people, but to make them feel good about their disability.  It’s important to note that most math teachers are not like this and some are just excellent.  (For me, this was Ray Wilbur and Dick Swindler at Lawrence High School.)

However, when I tell people I’m a mathematician its not uncommon for them to say something like: “Oh really? I suck at math.”

Math is an area where lacking skill is viewed as a positive quality.  What’s wrong with this picture?

While I was working at Iowa State University, another professor provided a remarkable demonstration of the sort of self-destructive behavior that arises in students taking a first-year math class. I’m fairly sure this behavior follows from the habits and attitudes they learned before coming to university.

Dr. Ken Hymas was teaching the math for business majors class. Teaching this class is always challenging because most of the students don’t want to be there. Ken gave a quiz on material that students coming into the class were already supposed to know. On this quiz, 20% of the students passed. Now Ken was a retired marine colonel and knew quite a bit about building up people’s confidence. He gave the same quiz the following week. Only 20% of the students passed. Bizarrely, these were not the same 20% that had passed it the first time. At this point, the quiz became an object of wonder for Ken. He gave the quiz a third time and 35% of the students passed. A fourth attempt raised this to 40% and, on the fifth attempt, the fraction passing rose to 82%.

What on earth was going on in the student’s minds? Ken and I discussed this and we think a number of factors were at work. From my own experience developing and teaching a course in business math, and Ken’s teaching this course, we’re pretty sure that most of the students believe that math is not relevant to business. It is also clear that most of them felt the only way to pass a math course is to treat the whole process as a scam, hustle, or dodge. The students believe that actually leaning the material is not only not worth doing, its not possible for them as normal people. Finally, since they’ve been dodging math since fourth grade, they are typically substantially unprepared for the course. This makes spending their effort on other classes an almost rational choice.

This leads us back to the way math is taught in high school. I have had hundreds of students who got and A or a B in a high school course that teaches trigonometry. In spite of this, when we use trig in another class, these students know no trigonometry at all. Part of this is that there are teachers that give a student an unearned grade because they feel that asking the students to learn math isn’t a reasonable goal. This is incredibly irresponsible and, well, wrong, but it also demonstrates that some math teachers don’t think math is worth teaching to everyone.

Another problem with teaching math before university is a strong tendency to teach math as a collection of rituals. This gives you students who can learn the ritual for those questions that are probably going to be on the exam and so get good grades without learning any math at all. When I teach first year classes, my biggest chore is convincing people not to use ritual as a technique for getting through a math course. Many students, ones with the potential to earn an A, end up with a C because they are addicted to math rituals and cannot stop using them.

Here’s the big secret: most human being can do math. Actually learning the math is the easiest way to get a good grade. All this assumes that you are not currently paralyzed by fear and that, over the years, you managed to pick up the basics. If you are paralyzed by fear you may be able to walk it back by working through simple examples. It also helps if you have a sympathetic friend to help you. If you don’t have the basics, you can pick them up by practice.

Remember: you have nothing to lose but your fear.

Dan Ashlock
Department of Mathematics and Statistics
University of Guelph, Ontario, Canada

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